According to a recent white paper from the outcomes working group at the Texas Education Agency, Texas is falling short of Gov. Greg Abbott’s “60×30 Goal.”
The goal’s intent is that by 2030, 60 percent of Texan adults aged 25-34 will possess a postsecondary degree. So far, about 40 percent of Texas adults have postsecondary degrees. Based on current trends and projected demographic changes, the state will miss the 2030 goal by two decades. The Austin Independent School District, however, has already made strides to not only meet this goal, but exceed it.
In 2017, 67 percent of AISD students were enrolled in a two- or four-year college within a year of high school graduation or had earned college credit prior to graduation. AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz said that postsecondary preparedness has long been a part of the district’s annual performance assessment.
The district’s college readiness goal goes beyond the governor’s 60 percent. As part of the multidistrict, multichamber and multibusiness Direct-to-College Achievement Plan, or DTC70, AISD is committed to enrolling 70 percent of the 2017-18 graduating class directly in postsecondary education. While the numbers for the most recent graduates will not be available until later this month, AISD’s 2017-18 scorecard set the direct-to-college enrollment target at 68 percent.
“(DTC70 is) a partnership with the Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Hispanic Chamber and the Black Chamber. All of us came together with them and said we need to make sure we’re boosting college readiness rates and also college enrollment, and at that time we included graduation rates,” Cruz said. “We’re part of that network. So we actually started on that process years back, and we as a district had also set to have more students walking across that stage having earned college credit.”
The purpose of both the DTC70 and the 60×30 Goal is to encourage students to seek higher education as a way to be competitive in the job market. Through expanding career and technical education courses, early college high schools and Career Launch programs, Cruz said that the district has been able to offer students a number of different options to begin pursuing postsecondary readiness while still in high school. In 2017, 3,421 students earned industry certifications or licenses before graduation.
The white paper, which offers suggestions to help the state get back on track toward meeting the 60×30 goal, emphasizes the importance of closing the gaps between economically disadvantaged and non-economically disadvantaged students. Statewide, on the 2017 STAAR assessment across all subjects, 60 percent of non-low-income students met proficiency standards, while 33 percent of low-income students met those standards. According to Cruz, the percentage of economically disadvantaged students who enroll directly in college or take college courses prior to graduation is lower than non-economically disadvantaged students, and while the district as a whole has over the 60 percent state goal, economically disadvantaged students still do not have at least 60 percent postsecondary readiness. To address that inequity, the district focuses a number of specialty programs in majority low-income schools.
“It’s by design that we started early college high schools in high-poverty campuses,” Cruz said.
AISD’s early college high school program allows students to pursue an associate degree for free through Austin Community College while enrolled in high school. The program began at LBJ and Reagan high schools in 2012, and has since expanded to Travis, Eastside Memorial, Crockett and Lanier high schools.
Additionally, the district provides all Title I high schools, or those with a high percentage of low-income students, with Project Advance specialists to help students with the college enrollment and financial aid process. Many Title I high schools and select middle schools also receive support from graduation coaches, who help emphasize the importance of college readiness from a young age.
“Those are some of the things we’ve done to address those equity issues, but there’s still performance gaps on the state test, and that’s something that we know we still need to address,” Cruz said.
The working group suggests attention to early learning as a way to prepare for long-term postsecondary readiness, with a particular focus on improving literacy rates and supporting English language learners. Over the past few years, AISD has expanded its dual language and early literacy capacity, partnering with groups like the University of Texas’ Literacy First tutoring program, and opening early childhood centers to focus on collaborative family and school approaches to learning. The district also funds full-day pre-K for 4-year-olds and half-day pre-K 3 for the youngest students in the district. State funding only covers half-day pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds.
“I think the language acquisition and literacy piece is so important, so all of that is to say we focus very much on early childhood education, balanced literacy and dual language for the younger grades,” Cruz said.
All these suggestions, however, take a level of funding difficult for many districts, which is why the paper also suggests that any school finance legislation proposed by the Texas Commission on Public School Finance include dollars “above and beyond” current funding levels in order to meet outlined goals. Rather than grants, the paper suggests a need for long-term, adjusted funding formulas to achieve these goals.
At a time when AISD is losing more money every year to recapture and under-enrollment, focusing on these priorities requires the district to pay special attention to what parents and students want to see from their schools. The district’s hope is that through diverse program offerings and early options for postsecondary achievement, students and parents will be encouraged to stay in and take advantage of AISD opportunities.